Sandra Johnston’s Ephemeral Monuments
Emma Doran

Upon entering the Toronto Free Gallery, a former a hardware store, I could almost still smell the lingering odours of paint and metal. I enter the performance space knowing that Sandra Johnston uses space as a character in, rather than a mere container of her work, and so I imagine how she will interpret this atmosphere; I envision various literal scenarios and toolbelt props, all the while knowing that this is certainly not how Johnston will portray the space. In fact, during her performance I don’t really see any relation to the history of the building at all. The performance space, at the back of the gallery, is a large darkly-painted black box, illuminated solely by two square holes and one tiny circular hole in the floor which let in the light from the basement below. Navigation through the room is tentative. At the far end of the room there is a raised platform with stairs connecting the two levels.  

The audience takes their place in this dim room, sitting and standing wherever they find a spot that pleases them. Johnston begins with slow repetitive hand and foot gestures. I can’t decipher if her eyes are closed or slightly open; regardless, she appears to be feeling her way through her movements rather than connecting directly with the spectator. It is as though she senses our presence, knowing us in a way that sight will not allow. Her movements are pedestrian in intention, but made unusual through their compulsive repetition. A rocking movement, originating as gesture, ripples through her body and into her feet and we watch as her toes cover and uncover a speck of bright light. Is it an ember? A laser? Johnston continues on drawing the audience through the space with her. Upon closer inspection, we see that the ember is actually a tiny hole in the floor. But Johnston has shuffled off with hunched posture toward another light, a larger square hole cut in the floor in the corner of the room. The light illuminates her face from below, giving her a ghoulish appearance. She stands in the hole and is suspended mid calf. It looks uncomfortable. I feel antsy and want her to step out. 

Throughout the performance Johnston hands are a central focus. She rubs tissues through her fingers, rubbing them until they disintegrate and their grainy texture is embodied through the movement of her entire body. Her downtrodden posture and tentative steps remind me of an elderly homeless person. As I watch I am curious to about how these movements relate to her perception of the space. 

The selection of the space is a choice that Johnston prefers to make herself. When this is not possible (as in this performance) and she has not even seen the space before arriving, the exploration begins from a truly blank place. For Johnston, the process of getting acquainted with a location never reaches a definite end and consequently, she doesn’t present what she considers a conclusive performance, but rather a finale of her process within the space, a technique which involves getting to know a space by working intimately within it. Certainly her work is informed from the site; however, this process of acquaintance involves a more reciprocal relationship; the environs react to her just as she is impacted by them. In this case, Johnston had access to the gallery for six days, with the final presentation occurring on the last day, September 25, 2009. Although many of the sites she has worked within are public, her process within the spaces is mainly a private one, only exposed to the public in its later, or even final stages. 

Johnston is primarily known for her previous work in the history of trauma and how site relates to  often disturbing memory. Previous locations for performances have included sites stigmatized by violence in Tel Aviv, Madrid and her native Northern Ireland. Fascinated by the role of place in the catharsis of the victim, she mentions to me that witnesses or victims are compelled to return to the site of the incident as a integral component of the healing process. The performances in these locations then act as an intervention in the history of the space, allowing new memories to be created and shared within a site previously associated with intense trauma. 

The role of location in trauma recovery is perhaps most evident in our desire to remember through the permanence of architecture. In his article, On Memory, Trauma, Public Space, Monuments, and Memorials, Julian Bonder discusses the commemorative role architectural monuments play in the collective psyche.

“As events and circumstances unveil in the present, a memorial’s destiny is to recall the past and provide conditions for new responses in the future. As our psycho-political and ethical companions, memorials should help us consider trauma and rethink and reactualize the past. They should encourage critical consciousness, committed memory-work, and the possibility of engaging with the world through transformative practices.” (62)

Johnston’s site-reactive work echoes this interventionist philosophy. She recognizes the physical catharsis of returning to the physical location of trauma, as if the body perceives the significance of its physical space in the process of recovery and grieving. In this way, her performances become like ephemeral monuments; the memory of the performance persists as both a way to recall the trauma and as a new conceptualization of the site, altering the individual and collective memory of it.

While Johnston’s origins lie in locational memory, in recent performances (including her Toronto performance) the site is more benign and she is left to interpret the site’s character and “essence” in the absence of any prior perception of it, interpreting the surrounding environs as she encounters them. In this case Johnston works to alter audience perception of the surroundings by highlighting the quotidian aspects of it. Her movements are based on both the space itself and her interactions in the surrounding neighbourhood.

Johnston’s current focus on everyday rituals and occurrences require an attention to habitual and unconscious neighbourhood activity that only an outsider could identify. However, I am struck by the similarities between her trauma work and her more “benign” performances which similarly rely on her attention to the body as a vessel of memory. Bonder suggests that memorials give us a way of representing memory in a cathartic and interpretive manner. It is in our return to the physical site of trauma that initiates a certain type of healing. In much the same way that the grave commemorates the dead and an epitaph creates a representation of the individual, a monument interprets an event for collective memorial. Theorist Paul Connerton insists that more ephemeral events, namely commemorative ceremonies fulfill much the same role and are unconsciously reified through bodily manifestations. “We can also preserve the past deliberatively without explicitly re-presenting it in words and images […] In habitual memory the past is, as it were, sedimented in the body” (72). Connerton is suggesting an embodied memory, one inaccessible to the intellect alone, one experienced through physicality. His interpretation of habitual memory seems on par with Johnston’s quotidian work in which she observes the everyday workings of neighbourhoods and the movement of their inhabitants. Although, Johnston does not seek only to commemorate through her practice; her goal is not to re-create the trauma in the event as a means of remembering it, rather her work is meant  as an intervention in the memory of the place.

In fact, the performance I witnessed was uncharacteristic of Johnston, who told me that this work took on a more personally motivated character than usual. My impressions of aged and homeless imagery were accurate; while familiarizing herself with the surrounding environs of the gallery, she became fascinated by the repetitive gestures of a homeless man, whom she followed and observed for an entire afternoon. Circumstances from her personal life also came to shape her interaction within the space. Johnston was coming to terms with the recent death of her grandmother, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s. In this performance the embodied memory of trauma, albeit of a personal nature, was her impulse for creation as she relived childhood memories that occurred in a secondary spacial character: her grandparents house.

When considering her process, one that she describes as including meditation, I am not surprised that personal experience would tint Johnston’s interaction within a space. While watching her perform I sensed that she views her body as a medium to channel the energy of a place and its atmosphere. It is not surprising that the body’s own recent trauma or sensations play a major role in this translation of environs. If one subscribes the idea that the body is inscribed with memory, then it can never be a tabula rasa. In reaction to a canon of performance art writing that proclaims the body to be an unmediated medium, performance theorist Amelia Jones reacts to the idea that body art provides a direct channel of communication between artist and audience. She challenges the assumed ontology of the performance “object,” (the body).

“The ‘unique’ body of the artist in the body artwork only has meaning by virtue of its contextualization within the codes of identity that accrue to the artist’s body and name. Thus, this body is not self-sufficient in its meaningfulness but relies not only on an authorial context of ‘signature’ but on a receptive context in which the interpreter or viewer may interact with this body. (Jones 14)”

According to Jones, there are two layers of mediation that prevent body movement from being a solely ontological communication medium: the way the artist chooses to represent themselves based on a complex conception of the self and the situation in which the performer presents themselves. Grief is a viscerally embodied experience and its resonances still reside in Johnston’s body. 

In the last minutes of Johnston’s performance she proceeds onto the raised stage, causing us viewers to shift and move around once again. Arching backwards over the largest illuminated chasm, she continues her tactile gestures. Her hands touch her face, exploring eyes and mouth with meticulous detail, as if they belong to a blind person. This is the only time in the work when her eyes are noticeably open; although they still do not see. They look at us, blinded by light. She is bent backwards over this crevice in a manner that looks uncomfortable. She seems to embody the discomfort and fragility of age. Her teeth appear to crumble like the tissues did previously, creating a collage of gestural movement. The light hits her skin, giving it a translucent quality. She exits through a door at he back of the stage and we are left in confusion. It is over or do we follow her? 

Her performance seems to be about openings, both of the room and in her own body. The holes in the floor are flaws of the room, just as her orifices are points of weakness and vulnerability in the body. Correspondingly, it seems fitting when one audience member opens the door, following her out into the cold. She concluded the performance in the outside space of the yard, entangling herself in the dense vines and wild plants. (Later, I learn that she intended the end to be inside, but continued after the audience followed her out.)

The impression of the light in her blind eyes is, to me, the most haunting image from this performance. I am left with the feeling that Johnston creates from a place outside the visual realm. She is primarily feeling the space, hearing the space and smelling the space, while vision is an afterthought, an accidental way of sensing. This blindness imagery was juxtaposed with Johnston’s use of light as an object, a sculptural entity within the space. Although she appeared to be feeling her way through the space she was also drawn towards the three light sources in the room, like a moth to a flame. 

Johnston’s concentration on alternative senses to vision is in keeping with her philosophy of creation. Her interest is in genuine movement and expression, instead of making arresting aesthetic moments which read like visual snapshots. This is in opposition to a visual art sensibility in which bodily performances such a ballet craft a series of static positions. Even within movement she places value on the tactility of the space. Sensorial awareness is privileged over aesthetics, experimentation over rehearsal.

After the interview I return to the concise but brief program notes and am struck by how accurately the last sentence describes my experience talking to Johnston. “[Her] work often retains the fragility of weighing out new thoughts, remaining unapologetically inclusive of all the doubts and disjunction which invade the human capacity to respond honestly to any given moment.” While chatting with her, post performance, I was struck by her simultaneous concern and interest over the perceptions of the audience and her seemingly contradictory acceptance of their confusion or silence. She is comfortable with various interpretations, which may be a reason for the rather general artist statement. Her untitled Toronto performance allows room for interpretation and suggests a comfortability with a lack of control of its purpose and meaning. Just as the spectators are left to negotiate themselves through the space (eventually determining a new ending to the work) we are also left to interpret its meaning as autonomous viewers. She is not afraid that people will be confused by it and seems to welcome my questions, clarifying and explaining as we progress in the conversation. She describes the immediate reception of the work as a “positive silence.” That perception is left unresolved is none of Johnston’s concern. I imagine that in another life she continues her process in the Free Gallery, evolving with the neighbourhood, breathing in its essence, gathering layers of its character through the human behaviour of its inhabitants. 

Worked Cited:

Bonder, Julian. (2009) “On Memory, Trauma, Public Space, Monuments, and Memorials” Places, 21(1). Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/4g8812kv

Connerton, Paul. (1989) How Societies Remember. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jones, Amelia. (1997) “’Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation” Art Journal, 56(4). 11-18.

Emma Doran is in the PhD program in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University. Her previous work as Archival Associate for Dance Collection Danse has sparked her interest in constructions of radical bodies through language and is the impetus for her dissertation, entitled “The Avantgarde Body in Dance Performance Criticism: The Case of Maud Allan’s Salomé.” As a writer, Emma has contributed publications to The Dance Current and Dance Collection Danse Press/es.

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